Jewish immigrants from Uzbekistan are new to Tucson and to the freedom that allows them to celebrate their religion openly.
This year, for the first time in her life, Yevgeniya Yusupova will celebrate Hanukkah openly.
Just last month, Yusupova and her family came to Tucson from their home in Uzbekistan, in the former Soviet Union, where Jewish holidays were celebrated in secret.
“We heard they took the babies of Jews for their blood,’ Yusupova said in an interview at Jewish Family & Children’s Service, where she is an interpreter.
“We made the traditional dishes and celebrated, but it was always in secret. We were scared.’
Today, Yusupova, her husband, Igor, and 4-year-old son Alexander will celebrate Hanukkah with friends and other refugees they have met here. The eight-day celebration began at sundown last night.
But the new tradition Yusupova and her family start will carry the memories of life in her homeland. She won’t forget what it was like to be a Jew in Uzbekistan.
“When I was little, my parents were afraid to tell us anything (about our Jewish heritage) because little children always repeat things,’ the 25-year-old said in the perfect English she learned while growing up.
Any time she had contact with foreigners, the KGB would interrogate her – because she is Jewish, she said.
When she went to school, her father told her she had to study harder than anybody else, but not expect good grades – because she is Jewish.
Neighbors threw stones at her. Once, a burning branch was hurled at her house. Because she is Jewish.
“In my country, Jewish people always seem to be guilty,’ Yusupova said. “They pay too much attention to nationality, and not enough to the person. Here, I don’t feel persecuted. To be a Jew here is a normal thing. Now, I’m like other people.’
Which means she can set up a menorah and light a candle for each of Hanukkah’s eight days.
And she can teach her son to play the dreidel, a four-sided top that is a traditional Hanukkah toy.
While her parents knew little about Judaism, because their parents were afraid to teach them, she’s learned about her religion from her grandparents and from her own studies. She is passing her knowledge on to her son.
“I’m happy my child won’t be scared to tell people he is a Jew,’ she said.
Yusupova and her family are among about 500 refugees who came to Tucson from countries in the former Soviet Union.
All experienced the same persecution, said Frederick S. Klein, director of resettlement at Jewish Family & Children’s Service.
“People come here thirsting to learn what it means to be a Jew,’ said Klein, “but there’s a fear about celebrating openly. I don’t know if one can ever escape history and environment.’
Festival of Lights
Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, began last night and ends next Monday.
The day commemorates the first armed struggle for religious freedom in recorded history, explains Frederick S. Klein, director of resettlement at Jewish Family & Children’s Service.
In 165 B.C., the Maccabees reclaimed the Great Temple of Jerusalem from the Syrians.
According to legend, there was enough oil to light the Temple’s candelabrum for only one day.
But the flame burned for eight days. This “miracle of the oil’ is marked today by the lighting of Hanukkah candles on each of the festival’s eight nights. As the candles are lighted, prayers are recited.
The hanukkiyah, or Hanukkah candelabrum, is set upon a window sill so neighbors can see it.